Myth # 147: Immigrants had their last names changed or shortened on Ellis Island.

While doing some research on a certain Russian immigrant for the nonfiction book I’m working on, I came across this myth. It surprised me, as I had never questioned this “fact.”  

We all know the story: millions of immigrants passed through immigration on Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 at an average of 500 people a day, and as they came, inspectors often shortened their last names to something easier to spell, something more “American” sounding. So Waclawek became Walters, Markovitch became Marks, or Schwarz could be translated literally and become Black.

According to the National Park Service, this is a myth. In actual fact, the inspectors on Ellis Island worked from ships’ manifests, where passengers’ names were already listed along with details about their occupation, age, country of origin, marital status, and so forth. These were created in their home port, not in the U.S. 

According to Smithsonian historians, “If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” says Philip Sutton, a librarian in the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, at the New York Public Library, in a blog post delving into the name change mythology. More commonly, immigrants themselves would change their names, either to sound more American, or to melt into the immigrant community, where they were going to live, says Sutton. If name changes happened with any frequency on Ellis Island, it was not noted in any contemporaneous newspaper accounts or in recollections from inspectors, Sutton says. 

It is also unlikely a foreign name would flummox an Ellis Island inspector. From 1892 to 1924, “one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages,” says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

So was your last name one of those that was Americanized?  

Read more:


14 Responses to Myth # 147: Immigrants had their last names changed or shortened on Ellis Island.

  1. Ramona says:

    My mother’s family name was misspelled on Ellis Island. I have my grandfather’s birth certificate and the spelling was difference. He went with the new spelling, though , when he became a citizen.

    • Ptboat says:

      Your grandfather may have changed it himself before coming here, orbit also may have been miapelled at his home port. Have you seen his ship manifest?

  2. How very interesting. I’ve always found surnames a fascinating subject. A friend’s family split off into different names – his branch became Okin, another became Aukin and so on.

  3. yes, as a immigrant myself, although I don’t know how it went over there, I do buy, though, that this could have came mainly from the immigrants themselves to avoid standing out or bring more attention towards them in the hope of facilitating their immersion within the new society. But it also could have been caused by various, more personal, reminders–we are abandoning something behind, after all, and it’s not easy to assume this completely, no matter what good reasons stand behind it.

  4. Paul says:

    Ellis still has many of the ship’s manifests and it’s very rare to find cases where another person’s handwriting is found on the last entry of the manifest There were stowaways added in this way. People would bribe the staff to add a name to an earlier ship’s manifest if they were in the country illegally. But mostly one sees page after page written in the same hand at the port of departure. Also, one rarely finds where a name in the manifest has been crossed out and another name written in another hand. Those are legitimate changes, but very rare and one can’t be sure they happened at Ellis Island. But consider this; you’re an immigrant who has come to escape the draft or criminal prosecution in some country so you change your name before even boarding the boat. Then you run into a fellow immigrant from your home town. Are you going to tell him you changed your name to dodge the draft and risk getting blackmailed or turned in or will you simply tell him your name was changed at Ellis Island, which would bear the imprimatur of the US Federal government? That’s how the myth began. So if your name was changed at Ellis Island in your family lore, 9 times out of ten, something fishy was going on. Ellis got pages of telegraphs everyday looking for draft dodgers and the accused from countries around the world. And the US would send them back if caught. Most people, though, knew how not to get caught.

  5. Janice says:

    My maiden name has 2 letter h side by side. The story is that my grandfather got tired of writing both that he left one out. We would visit my dad’s cousin and they would tease us for having just one h. They kept both in their name.

  6. Stephen Herchak says:

    Yes, my grandfather’s name on his papers from home show Konstantatijn Hurchuck and he left Ellis Island Constantine Herchak

    • Curtis Cook says:

      Changing ‘Hurchuck’ to ‘Herchak’ is similar to what one of my friends told me about his family name being changed from ‘Zimbrewski’ to ‘Zimbieck’, which is to say that it doesn’t sound reasonable. How are ‘Herchak’ and ‘Zimbieck’ any less alien than ‘Hurchuck’ and ‘Zimbrewski’?

      Simple drift over time seems like a more likely reason for the change. One of my college English professors had ancestors who came across the ice (the St. Lawrence River, which is how my paternal grandmother’s mother’s family got here) from French Canada. His branch kept the historical spelling of ‘LaPierre’, but all of his cousins changed both the spelling and the pronunciation to ‘Lapeer’. Ellis Island had nothing to do with that.

      The story they tell at Ellis Island about not changing the incoming names is the same as what they told me back in the ’80s when I toured it while it was still a ruin, though they have added details.

      Completely aside, I’ve found that looking into family legends leads only to disappointment. I tried to verify three of our family’s legends, only to discover that all of them were false… which is one reason I don’t understand people who are obsessed with researching their ancestry. The legend is more entertaining than the reality, so just tell the legend with a twinkle in your eye. People are themselves; they are not their ancestors. If you go back far enough everybody is descended from a king and everybody is descended from a horse thief, and if you go back really far, we’re all descended from the same king and the same horse thief, so why does it matter?

  7. Joseph M. Greeley says:

    My family name was spelled Greele or Grele (presumably with an accent over the final ‘e’) when they arrived in the New World, but that was in the late 1630’s so no Ellis Island then! My great grandfather added a ‘y’ in the early-mid 1800’s because he was tired of people calling him ‘Greele’ rather than ‘Greeley’ An aside to Curtis Cook’s comment, I wouldn’t call myself ‘obsessed’ with researching my ancestry, but I do find it interesting to know where I came from. Andrew Greele was my first ancestor in America and I recently located the site of the gristmill he built in 1640, the remains of which are still visible.
    You are correct however that we are not our ancestors. While I am proud of being related to Benjamin Franklin for example, I do not believe that it makes me in any way special.

  8. My grandfather’s last name was changed to his father’s first name and so is completely Americanized. I suspect whoever asked him questions either for the ships manifest or for the immigration records was not easy for him to understand/ My grandparents both came from a war torn area, their city had been burned to the ground and there wee several ports in the journey before they got on the ship to the us so there were no birth certificates or other records. Everything was verbal and subject to translation. My grandmother’s last name was shortened from one ending in ‘opoulis’ to ‘os’
    The funny thing is that my grandfather kept the new name on all his legal documents but always thought of himself as his old name. So when his first son was born they named him after his father and the poor guy went through life with the same first and last name.

  9. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: